Social partners hold differing views on parents’ right to work part time

Almost three years after the introduction of the right to part-time work for parents of small children, the social partners have outlined their perceptions of and proposals for improvements to the scheme. Whereas the business side argues that many employees could abuse the scheme in order to obtain better protection against dismissals, trade unions are calling for an extension of the scheme’s coverage.

Provisions of part-time work scheme

The right to part-time work for parents of pre-school age children was first introduced by the then conservative-populist coalition government on 1 July 2004. The aim of the initiative was to facilitate the reconciliation of work and family commitments, in particular for mothers of small children (AT0310201N). The parental part-time work scheme stipulates that all parents with children younger than seven years of age (or older in case of the postponement of their school entrance) are entitled to switch from full-time to part-time employment, or to alter their working time while retaining the volume of daily working hours during the working day. To avail of this scheme, the following preconditions must be met:

  • the employer must regularly employ more than 20 workers;
  • the employee must have a record of at least three years of continuous employment with the same employer;
  • the employee must live in the same household as the children or obtain legal care obligations in their regard under the provisions of civil law.

If all of these preconditions are satisfied, the employed parent is entitled to use the scheme. For this purpose, he or she has to give written notice to the employer, at least three months prior to the commencement of the part-time work period. The written notice should specify the envisaged starting date and its prospective length, which must be at least three months in duration, the desired number of working hours per week, as well as the planned time of commencement and end of each working day.

During the period from the day of notification of the planned parental part-time work period until four weeks after the end of that notice period, the employee is entitled to receive special protection against dismissal under the terms of the Maternity Leave Act (Mutterschutzgesetz, MSchG) and the Parental Leave for Fathers Act (Väter-Karenzgesetz, VKG). In fact, this special protection is valid for up to four months before the start of part-time work due to parental leave, while the closing deadline must be no later than four weeks after the child’s fourth birthday.

If the preconditions for the right to part-time work are not met, both the employer and the employee may agree on an individual part-time work regulation, although the employee is not entitled to impose a working time proposal on the employer in this instance. In companies with fewer than 21 employees, a works agreement may be concluded providing for an explicit right to part-time work for parents.

Views of social partners

Since its introduction in 2004, the two sides of industry have recounted different experiences in relation to the parental part-time work scheme. For its part, the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) fears that some employees, particularly male employees, would abuse the scheme by unduly making use of it without actually assuming care obligations, for the sole reason of obtaining better protection against dismissals.

The trade unions, on the other hand, would like the scheme’s coverage to be extended so that it also applies to companies employing fewer than 21 employees and to employees with a record of permanent employment with the same company of less than three years. Currently, just one third of female employees and about half of male employees have a legal claim to the scheme. Thus, it indirectly discriminates against women, whose working conditions are more frequently characterised by precariousness and who are more often employed in smaller companies.

Moreover, the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) and the Chamber of Labour (Arbeiterkammer, AK) contend that many employees are reluctant to enforce their right to part-time work should the employer signal an unwillingness to accept the scheme. This is because most employees fear that a labour conflict would arise with the employer. Therefore, according to AK records, during the first two years that the scheme was in force, only an estimated 20 dispute cases related to the scheme throughout the country were taken to court.

Commentary

In introducing the parental part-time work scheme, the government intended to help parents of small children to reconcile their work and family obligations. However, two obstacles in particular arise for employees wishing to use the scheme. Firstly, it covers only a minority of employees due to its restrictions in terms of company size and duration of continuous employment. Secondly, many employees abandon their right to the scheme to evade potential conflicts with their employer. Whereas the first restriction relates to a ‘simple’ legislative problem, the latter issue indicates that many employers – especially in low-wage sectors – have not yet acknowledged their responsibility with respect to the work–life balance of their workforce.

Georg Adam, Institute of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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